Profs. Mark Christensen of ESSEC Business School, Asia-Pacific and Geoffrey Lamberton of Southern Cross University make a compelling argument for widening the economic lens to lift human morality and focus it towards a legal framework on the condition of the other animals with which we share this planet.
Ethical Accounting and Live Sheep Exports by CoBS editor Guragam Singh from the work of Mark Christensen and Geoffrey Lamberton. With kind acknowledgement to Jacqui Sansonetti of Animals Australia for allowing use of images and footage. Warning: images and footage contain distressing scenes.
Needing a fresh perspective
Any organisation, and by extension, industry needs to be profitable if it wants to survive. As such, economic benefit is the first benchmark against which success can be quantifiably measured. Milton Friedman—the famous 20th century economist who advanced Shareholder Theory—would most certainly agree and as long as such profits were accrued legally, this benchmark would be the only one worth considering.
While that may be good for Friedman, it is certainly not in line with another important approach—Stakeholder Theory—that puts forth the notion that in addition to legal economic pursuits, a firm also has to consider its ethical and philanthropic responsibilities. As such, ethical responsibility is what Prof. Christensen and co-researcher Dr Geoffrey Lamberton consider as the basis for taking into account when considering the Australian live sheep export (LSE) industry.
Packed like sheep
On the west coast of the land Down Under, it is common to spot more than 70,000 sheep being crammed into specifically designed ships—that have only half of a score of decks—bound for the Middle East. The ocean journey takes about a little under a month and is nothing short of what would be considered hell had there been people on-board instead of the sheep —poor lighting, loud mechanical noise, constant engine vibrations and ship movement, high temperatures and stocking densities. And as a result, outbreaks of disease.
The fact that live animal export trade is crucial to the livelihood of thousands of Australian families is the only reason that the Australian government allows the LSE industry to operate in the way it does – despite what is acceptable by today’s social standards.
By stark contrast, Australia’s neighbour—New Zealand—ended live sheep export more than a decade ago. And it was because New Zealand felt that such trade put their reputation on the line. And because such a risk could result in major economic losses for them.
Cycle of apathy
By the time the ships reach their destination, thousands of sheep meet their end in painful ways. This scandal sparks public outcry, to which the government reacts by condemning the event. But the government does not apportion blame and instead marks an enquiry. After the public outcry dies out, it’s business as usual.
As a large industry, LSE research has produced data that suits its profitable goals. Since these goals can only be people-oriented, they fail to account animal welfare considerations. And these considerations are justification enough to put an end to the trade.
The buck stops with the shepherd
While putting animal welfare at par with that of the people is taking things too far, there is concurrence on putting an end to unnecessary suffering. And it is the public who decides this. To this end, customers have a right to know what happens behind the scenes. And as such, they should be made aware of the pain inflicted just to please their stomachs and palettes.
This is further supported by the argument that as the dominant species of the planet, humans have a moral responsibility to protect the planet’s flora and fauna, with some calling for a complete ban on commercial animal agriculture. Other views contrast this position. One of these is that animals are a renewable resource owned by humans, and it is this notion of animals being property that accounts for animal suffering. As such, it is necessary to balance these disparate schools of thought. And it is ultimately people who need to take charge of the sheep flocks and reduce the suffering.
Shaken not stirred
These people come from different sections of society and will have a different impact on the LSE industry. As such, it is necessary that in order for the LSE industry to undergo a pro-ethical shift, a large majority of society has to be catalysed into action. To ensure that, a concrete action plan will replace the usual rhetoric—the apathetic scandal-response-obduracy cycle—that leads back to square one.
Subsequently, an end to this rut requires more innovative and compelling arguments—for protests against Live Sheep Export, petitions to Parliament, extensive media coverage of scandals, and private members’ bills have failed to make a dent.
One such compelling argument can be made by the on-board veterinarian. Such professionals are capable of performing their duties for the entire 70,000-strong flock of sheep. Yet, they can’t. The physical environment is built to maximise economic profit, not provide access to each animal. As such, cost accounting fails to allow the veterinarian to accomplish their moral duty of relieving the animals of their pain.
The introduction of ethical accounting would catalyse social and political pressure – without being biased towards Live Sheep Export. In turn, this pressure would shift the LSE industry towards better practices – for financial returns that the industry would otherwise gain could be eroded by regulatory change.
Change in such an unsustainable industry will take a lot of effort and mobilisation and consequently there is a great need for sheep welfare activists. However, the current activists—who have spent so much energy to oppose LSE—will need to make peace with the notion of ethical LSE. This is where accounting scholars pitch in with solid research—providing a constructive channel to the activists. And reaching a middle ground.
The road to deliverance
It is indeed possible to turn the presently harsh Australian LSE industry into one that is ethical and sustainable. To this end, the traditional view of accounting would prove to be an ineffective tool and the need of the hour is to provoke values such as empathy, kindness, and compassion to motivate people to rise up and put an end to unnecessary animal suffering. Knowing how much an animal suffers is essential to reduce this.
Consequently, companies looking to implement ethical accounting could include management practices that eliminate ovine suffering in transit—for example, an increased number of on-board veterinarians, performance indicators relevant to animal welfare such as ambient temperature and humidity, photographic and video evidence of real-world conditions, narratives from expert witnesses, and improved record-keeping. In this way, both shareholders and stakeholders would have a voice – and a human one at that to redeem the silence of the lambs.
Note: The footage was captured by a concerned crew member, now whistle-blower, with all evidence provided to relevant State and Federal authorities (Animals Australia).
- View Prof Mark Christensen‘s and Prof Geoffrey Lamberton‘s academic profiles
- Read a related article: Social Accounting: Measuring sustainability
- Study at ESSEC Business School, Asia-Pacific
- Visit the Animals Australia website and engage.
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